By Mitra Taj
LIMA (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles urged regional leaders on Thursday to lend their support to opponents of Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro and back a recall referendum that could remove him from power.
Capriles, who spoke ahead of meeting Peru's new president, hailed growing support in South America as the economic crisis in Venezuela deepens and new market-friendly presidents have replaced former leftists in Peru and Argentina.
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru and Mauricio Macri in Argentina are both vocal critics of the Venezuelan government.
"The region is changing," Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate, told a news conference in Lima. "Corrupt governments are falling in Latin America, and they're going to continue to fall."
Opposition leaders in Venezuela have planned a march in Caracas on Sept. 1 to demand electoral authorities permit the recall referendum this year.
The timing is important. If it takes place in 2016, the country could see a new government. If it takes place in 2017, the vice president would take over should Maduro lose.
Critics have accused the country's electoral council of stalling the referendum process, however, and it looks unlikely that a vote will take place this year.
On Thursday, a group of 15 countries in the Organization of American States called on Venezuela to quickly take remaining steps needed to hold the referendum, according to Peru's foreign ministry.
Capriles said regional heads of state must also block Maduro from holding the presidency of the Mercosur trade group and "relaunching" the regional bloc UNASUR, which once provided a platform for late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his allies to stand together.
"Those days when a club of buddies would cover each other's backs is over," Capriles said. "South America has to stand firmly with respect to the rights of the people."
Capriles said Latin Americans sympathetic to the government that Chavez started in 1999 should visit the country now. Many Venezuelans say they are hungry, unable to get basic foods or medicines, and lootings and riots happen daily.
Maduro says his government is the victim of an "economic war" led by the United States.
Capriles has already found a new ally in Peru's Kuczynski, a 77-year-old former investment banker who wore a Venezuelan baseball cap as he posed for pictures with Capriles after the two met in Kuczynski's home.
"I support good causes and he's part of a good cause," Kuczynski said about Capriles in an official statement.
(Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Tom Brown and Ed Davies)